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Opinion: Clone Vs. Genre - When Art Imitates Art

Opinion: Clone Vs. Genre - When Art Imitates Art Exclusive

September 21, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield

September 21, 2009 | By Brandon Sheffield
More: Console/PC, Exclusive

[In this editorial, originally published in the September issue of Gamasutra sister print publication Game Developer magazine, editor-in-chief Brandon Sheffield muses over the distinction between game genres and so-called "clones."]

We often talk about “clones” of games, or copies of ideas -- but at a certain point, if an idea is copied, expanded, and massaged enough times, nobody says "clone" anymore.

When does an idea become large enough to lose its identity and flourish into a full-blown genre? Perhaps it’s better said that the idea gains a new identity, one that’s more generally applicable.

Most recently, we stopped referring to "Tower Defense clones," and began discussing tower defense games as an entire genre, which has since been expanded to include a number of variations by companies as diverse as Square Enix and PopCap.

"Doom clones" stopped appearing around the time Quake came out, and we started to deal with the first-person shooter as a genre.

Bejeweled, itself inspired by earlier matching puzzlers like Columns, is no longer copied per se; we now have the "match three" genre, which includes the robust Puzzle Quest in its ranks.

Will The Original Concept Please Stand Up?

This question occurs to me as I work on an iPhone game that's heavily inspired by one specific existing game. This original game has had one or two "clones" already, but they're not well known enough for the mechanic to have become pervasive. So how do I know if I've expanded my own version of the concept enough to safely claim I'm not making a "clone?"

Let's consider some existing examples. PopCap's Astro Pop successfully iterates on a concept popularized by the Data East game Magical Drop (grab colored balls from a well, form groups of three to remove them) by adding powerups and changing the setting to outer space. (Magical Drop III is pictured above.) Magical Drop's creator Data East was no longer around to make another entry in the series, so who would begrudge PopCap's renewal of the still-enjoyable concept?

One step further, there's the mobile game puzzler Critter Crunch, which looks familiar, but changes the chaining structure to such an extent that it feels like a totally different game.

Then there's Zuma -- also from PopCap -- versus Puzz Loop from Mitchell Corp. In this case, only the setting was changed; the gameplay was not significantly altered or upgraded from the two existing Puzz Loop titles. This is much more likely to be labeled a clone, because while the platform has changed from the original arcade game to the PC (and other devices), the game feels very similar. (Mitchell has since brought its concept to other devices under the name Magnetica.)

The game I'm working on may well be more similar to the original than it is different. Though the platform, characters, and controls will have all changed significantly, the core concept is still quite reminiscent of the original. So how will my game be labeled?

I Am Not A Replicant

So where is the line drawn? How much is "enough" concept evolution to make a game a step forward within a genre shard versus being labeled a clone? I say "shard," because as games evolve, genres themselves become more granularly defined. Though Tetris, Sokoban, Sudoku, and Bejeweled are all puzzle games, you wouldn’t paint them with the same brush. Falling-block puzzle, action puzzle, brain puzzle, and match three are the more correct terms.

Sokoban (a game in which you push boxes into the correct areas, trying not to trap yourself) is an interesting one, because most games based on its concept are in fact true clones, to the point that they use the Sokoban name in their titles and reuse the puzzle maps from the original. Variants like Chip's Challenge and Boulder Dash seem to escape the "clone" distinction by adding different goals and scenarios.

Then we have genre-defining games like Grand Theft Auto's 3D iterations. Certainly open-world games had existed previously, but the term "sandbox game" was used to describe something like SimCity rather than an action game like GTA.

After Grand Theft Auto III, any game with similar structural and mechanical elements was called "GTA-like," and to some extent that's still true. Perhaps this is because we heard a lot of publishers saying, "Make it more like GTA" at the time. But perhaps it's also partially the fault of the press for wanting to compare everything to a specific gold standard.

In the case of the game I'm working on, the original concept is simple. I think that's the major factor here. It seems the simpler the core concept, or the fewer core concepts exist within one game, the more likely a successor is to be labeled a clone. But of course, we don’t call Madden and NCAA clones of each other, nor clones of the sport on which they're based, even though they follow the original core concept of American football to the letter.

Ultimately, it's a question of semantics, evolution, and feeling. If a game simply feels too much like another, it’s going to get called a clone. If it works to distinguish itself within a solid concept, every game like it will work in concert to create a new genre.

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